IT WAS IN late January when Dane Smith stood in a small building at James Sprigg Payne airport in Monrovia. He had a stern look on his face.
Mr. Smith is the United States special envoy to Liberia. The fact that Liberia has a special envoy shows its special relationship to the United States, which sent freed slaves to found this country during the last century.
Mr. Smith's frown was provoked by reports that fighting had broken out 50 miles away. No one knew at the time that this was the beginning of battles that would lead to chaos in Monrovia, the nation's capital.
But the fighting was the biggest setback since a peace agreement signed last August, an agreement that essentially traded power for peace, handing over government of the country to the warlords who had devastated it in return for a promise that they would stop fighting.
In hindsight, it is clear that this was a bargain with the devil, doomed to failure. At the time it seemed like a good alternative to six years of brutal warfare that had left the country in ruins, the majority of its 2.5 million people in refugee camps and 150,000 of them dead.
Mr. Smith warned that Liberians had better quiet their guns and get the process that was supposed to lead to disarmament and elections back on track.
If there was an "or else" in Mr. Smith's warning, the question was "Or else what?" His answer: The international community would have to be involved in the reconstruction of this devastated country and its patience was not inexhaustible.
A further question that goes unanswer is why the Liberian warlords -- who resemble urban gang leaders more than military officers -- should in any way be motivated to do the right thing by the possibilty that money to rebuild the place might not be available if they didn't. Afterall, they had spent the last half-decade destroying the country.
The fact is the United States does not have much leverage in Liberia, but that is by choice. The United States would have a tremendous amount of sway over this country's future if in 1990, when chaos first descended on Monrovia, the 2,500 Marines just offshore had landed and restored order.
Instead, they landed, evacuated Americans, and took off, leaving Liberia to its fate. It was Nigeria, of all countries, that came to the rescue, but even its soldiers, the bulk of a regional peacekeeping force, turned their backs to the most recent pillaging.
A few months after the Marines sailed away from Monrovia in 1990, the United States reacted differently when a small Arab emirate was invaded. Kuwait might not have been founded by freed American slaves, it might not have a constitution based on that of the United States, or a flag designed after the Stars and Stripes, but it does have oil.
And thus saving it, and not Liberia, was seen to be in our country's interest. Indeed, abandoning Liberia was assumed to be the smart move, keeping our soldiers away from an entanglement in an inexplicable and ancient tribal war.
But the fact is that Liberia's war is easily explained: A bunch of greedy thugs with guns are running roughshod over decent people who don't have the means to oppose them.
It is not, actually, an ancient tribal war. Though it has now come down to members of the Krahn tribe battling it out with factions dominated by the Gio and Mandingo tribes, those divisions were only entrenched in the last decade or so. It's not like the hundreds of years of animosity between the Serbs and Croats, a dispute that is also deemed worthy of American military presence.
The tribal element was essentially introduced by Samuel K. Doe, the master sergeant who took over in a bloody 1980 coup. He was the first leader of Liberia who came from the indigenous people, not from the Americo-Liberians, the descendants of the freed slaves who spent about 100 years virtually enslaving the native population.
Many, including the United States, thought Doe was well-meaning and would grow into the job. But that was not the case. His policies did little for the average Liberian and almost everyone thinks that the only way he got 50.9 percent of the votes in a 1985 election was by having his henchmen count the ballots behind locked doors.
The fatal flaw in American policy toward Liberia may have come when then-Secretary of State George P. Shultz landed in Monrovia and declared that election valid. Doe put down a subsequent coup attempt and then the paranoia set in.
He began packing the military with members of his Krahn tribe and brutally suppressed the Gio tribe of the coup leader. To its credit, the United States saw that Doe was headed in the wrong direction and began reducing aid. But the ingredients for disaster were already present. The catalyst came when Charles Taylor invaded in December 1989.
Backed by outraged Gios, he reached Monrovia a few months later. That was shen the United States sailed away from the carnage just as it did last week.
Liberia may also be seen as a victim of the end of the Cold War. Up until the mid-1980s, the United States used Liberia as its primary electronic listening post in West Africa. The country's big international airport was seen as a crucial landing strip for missions into Africa and the Mideast.
Changes in intelligence and aviation technology reduced those roles, but until the Soviet Union crumbled, almost every war in Africa was seen as a battle between superpower surrogates for control and influence.
It is hard to imagine that the United States would have allowed Liberia to descend into this kind of chaos a decade ago. But once the possiblity of its falling into the Soviet sphere of influence disappeared, then falling into the hands of a bunch of bloodthirsty thugs was allowed.
The black community in the United States is the one group that could have pushed for more involvement in Liberia in the early 1980s, but it was preoccupied with another result of the Cold War's demise -- the birth of democracy in South Africa, where the division along racial lines was much more evocative than the confusing state of Liberia.
To be sure, the United States has been more active than any other non-African country. When the United Nations passes the hat to help pay for peacekeeping operations, the American check is always the biggest. Counting food and other aid, the United States had sent around $500 million to Liberia since the war broke out, about the same amount it gave during Doe's decade in power.
But its essential policy was stated by United Nations Ambassador Madeline Albright when she visited the country in January: This is a Liberian problem that Liberians are going to have to solve, she said.
These days in Liberia, that's like telling hostages held at gunpoint to take care of themselves.
Michael Hill is The Sun's Johannesburg bureau chief.
Pub Date: 4/28/96